Years ago, while working in Park City, Vessel Kitchen co-founder Nick Gradinger fell into a sense of despair during lunch.
Gradinger realized he had two options — a parking lot filled with fast food drive-thrus, or a fancy table with cloth napkins and high-priced food prepared by hand — and not much in between.
“And this is in an upscale community,” Gradinger said.
To fill that gap, Gradinger, co-founder Brian Reeder and executive chef Roe’e Levy opened the first Vessel Kitchen in Park City in 2016.
The dining room is casual. The ingredients are seasonal, and as local as possible. And the prices are reasonable.
“We felt like we could execute fine dining food in a more quick-service environment and then combine that with a more formalized, beautiful aesthetic,” Gradinger said. “And then we wanted to support local as much as we could, and leverage the best ingredients we could. But also, we have a term internally that we use: ‘cuisine agnostic.’”
That meant an ever-evolving menu that’s American with a global touch, with build-your-own salad or bowl options, so people could indulge in something rich and cheesy, go gluten-free or vegan, or stick to a round of Whole 30. (The way Vessel explains it on its website is as “healthy and healthy-ish.”)
The idea has taken off, and Vessel Kitchen has grown. In addition to the Park City restaurant at 1784 Uinta Way, Vessel now operates four other locations: Midvale (1146 E. Fort Union Blvd.), two in Sandy (2067 E. 9400 South and 11052 S. State St.), and Salt Lake City (905 E. 900 South), which opened in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This fall, Vessel Kitchen will open a sixth location to celebrate its sixth anniversary, at 330 N. Central Ave., Farmington.
Gradinger said the decor of the new location will tip the hat to the first Park City restaurant, which used earth tones, woodland designs and lots of plants.
“We’ll be doing a couple different things on the design front,” Gradinger said, in a “kind of a tribute to our past. We’ll have an open kitchen format… and we’re going to try to bring in different elements from across our five existing restaurants. It’s been fun to take a look at everything that we’ve done in the past six years and combine them all.”
Gradinger said the Farmington restaurant also will benefit from the new central kitchen at its 9400 South location, which is set up to help the chain try out new and seasonal menu items, and offers takeout and delivery.
“We’re kind of mad scientists throughout the year,” he said. “We basically said we’re going to spend the entire year throwing out crazy ideas that didn’t fit within one cuisine or one single framework, and see what ingredients we can get our hands on and make it delicious.”
The goal, he added, was to get back to three to four menu changes a year across all the locations, based on feedback from customers.
“If we’ve done 300 dishes in the last six years, what are some ones that should be taken off, and what would you like to see back? And then we’ll go into the lab and test it out,” he said. “So Sept. 16 is the anticipated launch date for our new menu, and then we’ll do another big change in January, and then keep going throughout the spring, summer and next fall.”
Gradinger said the new central kitchen and take-out location at 9400 South is a way to figure out how to “make good food more accessible, more quickly, across the community.”
At the same time, he said, they never want to become fast food. Vessel Kitchen, he said, is still grounded in local produce and a spirit of experimentation.
“We just connected with our local farmers down in Sandy, New Roots, and [one of them] dropped off a bunch of eggplants and Yukon potatoes and a handful of other items,” Grardinger said. “Chef Roe’e is going to be making an eggplant dish today, and we’re going to showcase it at our central kitchen and use that as a mechanism to test out dishes for our September menu change. So we’ll pop up and showcase an ingredient that we’re testing.”
Gradinger said he’s most proud of Vessel Kitchen’s ability to move on the fly, “that we can just get our hands on some good ingredients and figure out how we want to treat it, and then showcase it, and see how people respond.”